Thursday, July 28, 2011

Reader's Diary #740- Ernie Lyall: An Arctic Man

The main reason I decided to do a book about my life in the north is that I finally got fed up with all the baloney in so many books written about the north.
That first sentence of An Arctic Man somewhat captures the tone and theme of this autobiography of Ernie Lyall, the son of Irish and Scottish parents who was born and raised in Labrador and wound up, like his father, working for the Hudson's Bay Company but living in Nunavut (what was then still part of the Northwest Territories). Lyall married an Inuk woman with whom he had eleven children and raised them in an Inuktitut-speaking household. He is one of the few white people that was given an Eskimo number, numbered discs that were given to the Inuit in the early 40s in order for RCMP, missionaries, doctors, and sometimes the HBC to record them in their documents (most Inuit at the time didn't use surnames, many had the same first name, and sometimes, according to Lyall, would sometimes change their name). Lyall didn't have an issue with these numbers, and in fact saw them as no different than social insurance numbers, health card numbers, and so on. This stance helps complete the tone and theme.

The "baloney" part, besides showing Lyall's total lack of pretension and common-man speech, is mostly directed at Farley Mowat. I'd heard people refer to Mowat as "Hardly Know-it" before but this is the first time I've seen that moniker in print. Most of Lyall's disdain for Mowat (and there seems to be a lot), comes from Mowat's The Snow Walker. While some of the stories in that collection, Lyall acknowledges, are clearly fiction others are based on reality and used the names of real individuals, including Lyall himself. The problem isn't simply misspelling a name or place here or there, but also misrepresenting facts in order to fit an agenda. In one instance he says that Lyall has part Eskimo blood. On the more extreme and upsetting side, he even suggests that some individuals had died, or worse committed suicide, when, according to Lyall, they were alive and well at the time. You can well see why Lyall would be upset. And, if what Lyall suggests is true (as I'd venture to guess it was considering Lyall's long time in the north and near religious record keeping), Mowat should be thankful it wasn't a more litigious society or time.

But that's as far as Lyall's wrath seemed to spread. Otherwise Lyall seems so easy going and likeable that I found myself wishing at times he did get more upset. A company man, it sometimes seemed that the HBC could do no wrong. Even when Lyall recounts being temporarily let go by the company at one point, he seems very forgiving about the fact, and is at that moment uncharacteristically reserved in sharing the details. Likewise he mentions that he's never met a police officer he doesn't like. At the time of residential schools, he freely admitted that it caused great heartache on the part of parents who were forced to have their children taken away and sent off to schools where they would be forced to speak and write solely in English. Some of Lyall's own children were sent away to attend school and though the government apparently promised to return them, they were away for five years without so much as a summer visit. Lyall fought to have them returned for the summer holidays to no avail. And yet despite all this Lyall took a government job as an interpreter, traveling to various Inuit settlements with pilots (one who even referred himself as "the chief kidnapper"), while extolling the benefits of this education.

But while I did find it sometimes unfortunate that Lyall reserved most of his criticism for Mowat, when personally I think some of the establishments deserved more than they got, I found Lyall's personality infectious nonetheless. There was a certain confidence in his writing, a certain warm comfort in himself, that could have come across as cocky or preachy. Instead, it was like listening to the wild, tender, exciting, tragic and funny tales of a grandfather, and that's something I've sorely missed.


Buried In Print said...

This sounds quite interesting. Books from this series of biographies dotted the bookshelves at home when I was growing up and I still have a few at hand; you've reminded me that I should read some of them for a change!

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Nothing like a good old-fashioned authorly bitch-slap! I like this fellow.

Ashley C said...

He is my grandfather :)

John Mutford said...

Ashley: Good to hear from you!